Anne Reid has starred in some of the most popular TV dramas of recent years. Phil Penfold talks to the veteran actress about her roles in Sanditon and Last Tango in Halifax.
For anyone out there of “a certain age” who may be contemplating, or limping toward, a hip replacement, then take heart. Anne Reid celebrated her 84th birthday earlier this year and, only weeks back, went in for surgery. Just a fortnight later, she was still dependent on a braced cane for support, but was able to put that to one side, to proudly demonstrate that she could stand quite happily, and unaided.
“It’s been a real success”, she beams, as she prepares to film another series of Last Tango in Halifax in Yorkshire – filming is due to start next month. “I can’t wait to get back to last Tango, and to be fully fit again,” she says.
In fact Geordie-born Anne, who now lives in London but who “absolutely adores” working in the North, reveals that there were several moments of painful discomfort when she was making Sanditon, her latest on-screen outing. It’s based on the unfinished Jane Austen novel, which has been fleshed out by writer Andrew Davies. “I’d heard about it, but never read it. I think we’ve all read Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, but who can honestly put their hands up and say that they are familiar with it? Anyway, all I know is that when my agent sent me the script, I took about four seconds to say ‘I have to do this.’”
The problem was that, with the arthritis in her right leg becoming painful, she knew that several scenes would test her to her limits.
“I’m playing a very rich old aristocrat called Lady Denham,” she explains, “and it’s a gift of a role. But there was one day when we are all out, enjoying the fresh air, and having a walk along a cliff-top. It was all shot down in the South-West, around Bristol, and the scenery was absolutely wonderful. But walks along cliffs on narrow paths aren’t known for being what you might call ‘level ground’, and I really had to concentrate on moving – in full period costume – with as much grace as I could possibly muster. I really didn’t want to be seen limping along. I think I pulled it off, but it was really aching at the end of that day’s shot.”
It’s a role she enjoyed playing, though. “As well as being terribly rich, she’s also mean, and manipulative. But she came, we’re told, from a fairly ordinary background, and then married a man with money, who then died, leaving her with a fortune. She then married again, to get her title, so she’s been around a bit, and she can sniff out a fortune-hunter a mile off. Precisely because she was one herself. I know people like her – the ones who never ever get their wallets out,” she says.
“She speaks her mind, and she doesn’t take any prisoners. She can’t be bothered with what people think of her. I think that, when you arrive at a particular time of life that happens to a lot of people.” Is that true of Anne? “Of me?” she laughs, “Yes, I think that I’m a bit like that. When you get older, you definitely do get a bit more crabby. I’m definitely a lot crabbier today than I was 20 years ago. The funny thing is that I’m generally in the kitchen in the dramas I do, and this is the first time I’ve been ‘moved upstairs’.”
Austen’s story is that Sanditon is a small fishing village which is going to be developed – so some entrepreneurs of 1819 hope it will be transformed into a fashionable place for the gentry and the rich to go on holiday.
There’s a scene where some of the men go swimming naked – not something Anne would do. “I find that...interesting. My clothes will always remain firmly on, I promise you. Unless they offer me £4m, so that I can retire in style!”
She’s looking forward to filming the new series of Last Tango in Halifax. Anne – who has starred in films and TV series as diverse as The Mother, Dinnerladies, Shameless, Upstairs Downstairs and (more recently) Years and Years – again appears as Celia, who, in the first of the ratings-winning strand, was reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Alan, played by Sir Derek Jacobi.
At a recent Bafta ceremony, Anne got a standing ovation from the packed celebrity audience when she said – after being “pushed forward” to accept the Best Series award – that good roles for older actors and actresses were few and far between, and that Last Tango’s subject matter, of two people in their retirement falling in love, wasn’t as rare as most people thought it was, just that it never got any TV airtime.
“Because so many people in this industry are cursed with tunnel-vision, and focus almost exclusively on the young. If you’re over 32, you are totally ignored, and thought ‘past it’. That’s wrong. Us oldies want a bit of action as well. It annoys me beyond belief that certain people believe that we are all ready to be ‘switched off’. As for that speech, well, I just burbled in a blind panic, really, but it was a burbling from the heart, and it seemed to strike a chord,” she says.
“I was so very pleased at the reaction that the last series had, and I have to own up now that I received a stack of letters, a whole box full. I simply haven’t had the time to reply to them all as yet, but I will, I promise. That sort of thing gladdens your heart, because it takes an effort for viewers to pick up a pen and to say ‘well done’, and you know when it happens that you are doing something right, something that has touched a chord.”
She chuckles that Dinnerladies (in which she played the sharp-tongues Jean) was such a success that “young men, and for some reason it is nearly always young men, still come up to me in the street and deliver a few lines to me, because they loved it so much”.
Anne first came to fame when she arrived in Coronation Street to play Valerie Barlow, and stayed for nearly a decade before being killed off (at her own request) in 1971. “Poor love”, she sighs, “I don’t think that anyone has ever been electrocuted by a hair drier before, which was Valerie’s fate, but then I don’t think that there are many who can claim that there were nearly 19 million at their funeral, a week or so later. That’s how many people tuned in for it. My son thought it was a wonderful idea, not so long ago, to buy me a boxed set of the early years of Corrie, and I normally don’t mind at all when it comes to watching myself on screen, but when we played the DVDs, to my horror I saw this squeaky-voiced dizzy blonde, and I realised that it was all-too-horribly me.”
Anne was appointed an MBE a few years ago, much to her surprise. “It came out of the blue”, she says. “It was an honour, and I wouldn’t mind being a Dame, but I don’t think that’s on the cards.”
And despite the cooler climate, she’s pleased to be heading back to West Yorkshire, “Inevitably sometimes the weather isn’t that wonderful. But that isn’t a problem at all when you’re working in glorious countryside, with such a great, friendly cast and crew, and such warm Yorkshire hospitality.”
And as for the secret to her acting longevity, she has this to say: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have a laugh at yourself sometimes. You’ll often find that you’ve got a lot to laugh at.”